By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
Assigned to blitz often against the New York Jets on Sunday, Washington Redskins rookie safety LaRon Landry knew he would have some fun. Pursuing quarterbacks is what the NFL newcomer enjoys most, and Landry's ability to apply pressure against Jets rookie quarterback Kellen Clemens was a key component of the Redskins' defensive strategy in a 23-20 overtime victory.
Of course, rookies are prone to mistakes. Landry had a roughing-the-passer penalty on a third-down play in the first quarter, prolonging a drive that led to a field goal and angering Washington's coaching staff, which has emphasized avoiding penalties on third down. And the NFL weighed in, fining Landry for making helmet-to-helmet contact with Clemens on the play.
Overall, however, Landry had another effective performance, the Redskins said, continuing to impress with his attitude and passion. After using the sixth overall pick in the draft to select Landry, the Redskins are certain they chose wisely, though he still has a lot of on-the-job training ahead.
"He's what we thought we were going after in the draft," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "There are guys who come up here and say, 'Hey, I belong here. This is what I was meant to do.' He feels like he belongs."
The Redskins' only rookie starter, Landry quickly established himself as a productive member of a veteran defensive unit. He is third on the team with 57 tackles, including 36 solo, and has 1.5 sacks.
Against the Jets, Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, took the reins off Landry. In the first seven games, Williams had primarily used a base cover-2 defense, having Landry and safety Sean Taylor playing deep in the zone coverage.
At Giants Stadium, Williams decided to test Clemens, who was making his second career start after replacing Chad Pennington as the starter early last week. Using Landry as the hammer, Williams called for more blitzes out of multiple formations than he had previously. For his part, Clemens played well, making things difficult for Washington, but Landry was a factor, too.
Landry had one of the Redskins' three sacks and hit Clemens on two other occasions. The coaching staff was pleased with how often Landry's presence in the pocket prompted Clemens to react and adjust. But Landry drew Williams's ire when, on New York's second possession, he made helmet-to-helmet contact with Clemens while a pass fell incomplete on third down.
Williams berated Landry on the sideline, and the NFL fined him $16,764 (the equivalent of one of his game checks) for unnecessary roughness. Williams was especially infuriated, the Redskins said, because Williams and Jerry Gray, secondary-cornerbacks coach, have instructed Landry to only attack an opponent's "strike zone," from the mid-thigh area to the shoulders, in an effort to avoid penalties.
Although the Redskins expected him to be fined, Landry earned the admiration of his teammates for playing "his type of football" when Williams increased his responsibilities, cornerback Fred Smoot said. "We knew we had those type of safeties, we knew that coming into the year once we drafted him. And we've got the type of guys you've got to let get around that ball. They're going to make plays."
Landry developed a reputation of being a big hitter while at LSU, which was among the reasons the Redskins made him their No. 1 target in the draft. But early on this season, coaches noticed problems with Landry's tackling technique, prompting the strike-zone rule. Taylor experienced similar problems when he was a rookie, and coaches will continue to work with Landry in practice. The Redskins, who plan to continue using Landry in a blitzing role, want him to remain aggressive despite the fine.
"I'm not going to stop playing the way I do," Landry said. "I'm not going to stop my intensity, I'm not going to stop being aggressive out there. That's just the way I've always played. I don't know any other way to play.
"I love to go on blitzes and I love getting free and getting hits on the quarterback, but it's kind of hard to let up. I could have had him [Clemens] like two more times, but I let up. I didn't want to get that penalty again. Coach Williams gets hot."
But Landry is his own toughest critic, and the fine was another negative mark on a performance he graded as a "C-minus, even a D," Landry said. "There were some plays I could have made and I didn't play the proper technique. I missed three, four tackles. I feel it's never good enough for me."
Landry, 23, has pushed himself to improve since childhood while trying to keep pace with his older brother, Dawan, a starting safety with the Baltimore Ravens. His determination to excel only increased under the tutelage of former LSU coach Nick Saban, who helped Landry to prepare for what he's facing now.
"Having Coach Saban, an NFL-type coach, he really coached me up well my freshman year," said Landry, a four-year starter at LSU. "So I had the experience of being put in situations to learn how to blitz. You've got to know the scheme, you've got to know the protection of the offense and how they're going to pick you up."
Now in his first season at Alabama, Saban said Landry's success is not surprising.
"One thing you always look for, and it comes from personal characteristics in terms of guys reaching their full potential, is a guy who is a relentless kind of competitor, a guy who has a high standard of excellence and takes tremendous pride in what he does. LaRon is about as good as I've ever been around when it comes to that," Saban said. "He really hadn't played much defensive back in high school, comes and starts the fourth game as a freshman and plays every game of his career. Each year, he got better and better, bigger and bigger, stronger and stronger, and he's what you want everybody to be."
Last season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Redskins were last in the NFL in average yards allowed per pass attempt, giving up an average of 6.91 yards. This season, they're third in the league with a 5.88-yard average, and Landry has helped to shore up the pass defense, Gray said.
"LaRon is a rookie, so you look at him and think, 'How can a rookie step in all of a sudden and do such a good job?' But LaRon is very smart," Gray said. "Yes, he's got talent, but he's also smart. He takes good notes and he wants to improve. He has growing room, so we work on those things where he needs to improve."
It's all about the proper technique, Landry said.
"Stepping into the NFL, I knew it was going to be a big step, but I didn't know so much about the little things that result into big plays," he said. "That's what I'm really trying to grasp a hold of, learning the little things, watching tape and really critiquing myself.
"The main thing is just technique and knowing formation, down and distance. Your opponent, too, who you're going up against and what you expect those guys to do as offensive players."
Landry is catching on faster than he realizes, the Redskins said, and his best moments are yet to come.
"LaRon is a special talent," safety Pierson Prioleau said. "He has the physical tools to be as great as he wants to be. Now, he still has a lot to learn in this league because he's a young guy, but he's picking it up at a speed that is very comfortable for the coaches.
"He's grasping some of the situations and game things that usually don't come until your second and third year. And if you tailor things to his talents and strengths, which is attacking and blitzing, he's going to be real good at that."